Ever dreamt of eyeballing elephants and cruising with crocodiles?
A luxury African safari is a bucket list mainstay for many travellers, but now there’s a new place where you can go wild – for a fraction of the price.
Sri Lanka, the tear-shaped tropical island in the Indian Ocean, has shed its civil war past to become one of the world’s most desired travel destinations.
The country’s national parks are home to about 5000 elephants, as well as sloth bears, leopards, crocodiles, water buffalo, spotted deer and birdlife, which are attracting a growing wave of high-end adventure seekers.
What it might lack in big cats and rhinos, Sri Lanka makes up for with verdant tea plantations, ancient temples, breathtaking train rides and intricately-spiced cuisine.
Best of all, it’s only about 10 hours’ flight from Melbourne. Last year, Sri Lankan Airlines re-introduced direct daily services to the capital Colombo after a 15-year hiatus.
From beachside huts with private plunge pools to wooden chalets in the hills and cocoon-shaped tents with teak floors, here’s how to do a Sri Lankan safari in style – with some options for those on a tighter budget.
Elephants are just the start of the sights at Minneriya National Park. Photo: Instagram/Ben Tyers
Minneriya National Park
One of the drawcards of Minneriya is its location, just a short drive from tourist-friendly towns and one of the country’s biggest attractions, Sigiriya Rock fortress.
An afternoon of elephant spotting is bookended by a smorgasbord of experiences, from climbing up the ancient Lion Rock fortress to a traditional bullock cart ride, boating on a lake, a spot of shopping and a soothing Ayurvedic massage. But back to the elephants.
The 8800-hectare park is home to hundreds of Sri Lankan elephants, an Asian sub-species that has smaller ears than its African cousins. In Minneriya, they congregate around an ancient reservoir built by a king.
The park also teems with buffalo, birds, deer, purple-faced langur monkeys, peacocks and sloth bears, but you might need to prompt your in-a-hurry safari guide if you want to linger.
Soak up the views at Aliya Resort and Spa.
We spent hours watching the elephants frolic and feed, and still made it back to our hotel, the elephant-themed, arty Aliya Resort and Spa, for a sundowner.
The hotel’s open-air restaurant and infinity pool are elevated for the area’s best, uninterrupted views of the commanding Sigiriya, a UNESCO World Heritage site that juts dramatically into the sky.
Aliya is a Sri Lankan celebrity hotspot but is surprisingly budget-friendly – from as little as $114 for a deluxe room, and $180 a night for a spacious Swiss-style wooden chalet at the end of a jungle path. A two-bedroom, two-bathroom suite with spa, private pool and sauna and home theatre system starts at $413.
Yala National Park
Sun, surf, sand … safari. At the country’s premier national park, which hugs the Indian Ocean, leopards leave prints in the sand.
The 130,000-hectare park is packed with wildlife and – on the outskirts – there’s a burgeoning range of stylish stays.
The jewels in the crown are the luxury Uga Chena Huts, a clutch of 14 elevated residences built among the sand dunes. With private plunge pools, the cabins have price tags of about $1450 a night, all inclusive.
Or there are the eye-popping cocoon-shaped suites at Wild Coast Tented Lodge; from $805 a night, all inclusive – including jeep safaris.
For a more quirky experience, rest your head in an elephant-shaped villa, a treehouse or boathouse at the moderately-priced Kumbuk River Eco Extraodinaire, from $52 a night including breakfast.
Udawalawe National Park
An hour north, this pachyderm paradise is a magnet for elephants and less choked with safari jeeps than Yala.
It hosts the Elephant Transit Home, a “half-way house” where abandoned or orphaned elephant calves are treated before being released back into the park.
Glamping options are on the more modest side. They include the Mahoora Tented Safari Camp, which has carpeted floors, artworks, living rooms and en-suites. A three-bed classic tent starts at about $600, all-inclusive, including half-day safari and meals.
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